Food After Dark: Foods That Secretly Lead to Weight Gain

Late Night Eating and Weight Gain


The Worst Foods to Eat at Night

Fatty foods and high calorie foods are harder to digest and thus more likely to cause indigestion, keeping you from a good night sleep. Other late night snacks to avoid include sugary treats and alcohol, which can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then drop, interfering with sleep, especially if you’re diabetic. So if you’re going to consume an evening snack make sure to include lean protein and a healthy source of carbohydrate, such as a whole grain. Some good combinations include:

  • Half of a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread
  • 100-calorie pack of popcorn with some string cheese on the side
  • Hard-boiled egg with a whole-grain English muffin
  • Celery with peanut butter and raisins, or with light cream cheese
  • A few whole grain crackers with light cheese
  • A small protein smoothie

Is It Okay To Eat At Night?

Well, that depends. For years, dietitians taught that people gain weight when their overall calories eaten for the day exceeded the number of calories that they used that day. It was simply calories in versus calories out, or so we said. Yet when I started working with weight loss clients, I found that my clients had the best weight loss success when they made sure they ate most of their calories earlier in the day, and fewer calories at night. In fact, my least successful weight loss clients ate just one large meal late in the day and/or consumed most of their calories later in the day or evening, often skipping breakfast and sometimes lunch entirely. Regardless of the research, my clinical experience had shown me that it was best to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen, and dinner like a pauper.

Although my clinical experience has shown me that eating heavier later in the day could sabotage my clients’ weight loss goals, research had not proven this until now.

Recent Research Shows That Eating At Night Causes Weight Gain

A study by Northwestern University’s research team recently shed new light on this topic, showing there is more to the weight loss story than just eat less and exercise more. Inspired by their knowledge that shift workers were often obese, they began experimenting to see if it truly does make a difference what time of day food is eaten.
In their study, researchers observed mice that were fed a high-fat diet during normal sleeping hours had gained 48% more weight over their baseline. This was significantly more than mice eating the same type and amount of food during naturally wakeful hours, which gained only 20% more weight. There wasn’t a statistical difference between the two groups regarding caloric intake or the amount of activity. This research suggests the timing of meals may matter in the weight loss formula, not just the amount of calories.

How Many Hours Before Bed Should You Stop Eating?

According to Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD, you should consume 90% of your calories before 8 p.m. Following this advice allows flexibility for a planned healthy snack in the evening, which according to most research, will still allow you to maintain a healthy weight.

In conclusion, having only light and nutritious evening snacks that are planned as part of an overall healthy diet will provide you with the best chance of maintaining a healthy weight and providing you a good night sleep. And remember to avoid foods that are bad for you no matter what time of day it is; after all, junk food is still junk food.

Jennifer M. Wood, MS, RD

Jennifer M Wood, MS, RDN is registered dietitian nutritionist and successful food and nutrition consultant in Southeastern Minnesota. As the founder of a nation-wide gourmet food company, Wood wrote Jenny’s Country Kitchen…recipes for making homemade a little easier! (2003), which is a timeless collection of make-ahead, freeze-ahead and pantry-stocking recipes and time saving tips to help busy families put nutritious food on table. Wood graduated with a pre-med bachelors degree in nutritional science in 2001, completed her dietetic internship in 2007 and went on to complete a master’s degree in food and nutrition in 2011.

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